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Committee takes first step in changing voting laws

In Maricopa County precincts with higher minority populations, greater chance of casting provisional ballotsHoping to lessen the crush of provisional ballots that delayed the final tally after the November election, the new Senate Elections Committee took its first step in changing the laws governing Arizona’s Permanent Early Voter List.

In its first meeting of the 2013 session, the committee passed SB1261 on a party line 4-3 vote. Sen. Michele Reagan, the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the committee, said she plans numerous changes, some of which were suggested during the nearly three-hour hearing.

But the committee moved the bill forward over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, activists and others involved in voter registration efforts, who said the bill would hinder many Arizonans’ ability to vote by mail.

The central provision of the bill would help counties purge the early voting list of people who receive early ballots in the mail but show up at the polls to vote in person, which requires them to use a provisional ballot. Under SB1261, voters would receive a notice in the mail asking if they want to stay on the PEVL if they don’t mail in their ballots for an election cycle. If they vote in at least one election, the primary or the general, they would not receive a notice. Anyone who receives a notice and does not respond would be removed from the early voting list.

One provision would make it a Class 5 felony to alter someone else’s voter registration form in any way, including to mark the box indicating that a voter wants to be on the list. Another would add a statement to the forms distributed by groups involved in voter registration drives explicitly stating that by signing up for the early voting list, a voter is agreeing to receive a ballot in the mail and doesn’t want to vote in person at a polling place.

The bill was requested by election officials in all 15 counties after a record number of people voted provisionally in last year’s election. In Maricopa County, about 60,000 people voted in person after receiving mail-in ballots, accounting for about 59 percent of the county’s provisional ballots, Trey Williams of the Arizona Association of Counties, testified.

Reagan, R-Scottsdale, said the bill is aimed at easing the burden that county election officials face. Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said it’s a problem that every county had to deal with in November.

“During the election we all had an overriding issue with provisional ballots,” Osborne said. “We’re talking about people who do not want to vote by mail.”

Osborne said many people don’t realize they’re on the Permanent Early Voter List (PEVL) until they show up at a polling place, and on Election Day about 3,000 people asked to be removed from the list on the spot. She said Maricopa County received more complaints about people not wanting to be on the list than in previous years, “by an outlandish amount.”

The bill attempts to remedy that problem by making it a Class 5 felony to check off the box on someone else’s voter registration form that indicates they want to be on the PEVL.

Osborne and other supporters of the bill emphasized people would not be automatically removed from the PEVL. They would receive a postcard from the counties asking them to affirm they want to stay on the list. If they don’t respond, they would be removed.

Critics of the bill, however, warned of unintended consequences. Most of the people who testified about SB1261 opposed the bill.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Tolleson, worried that people who want to continue receiving early ballots would be purged from the PEVL. Other speakers warned it may have a disproportionate effect on groups such as the elderly or Latinos.

Attorney Roopali Desai, who represents Promise Arizona, a Hispanic advocacy group, said a disproportionate number of provisional ballots are cast by Latino voters. She also said the bill might purge people who want to stay on the PEVL. For example, she said, some might not receive the postcard from county election officials, and she pointed out that some counties may not send notices at all.

“We believe that it’s not good for the public,” said Desai, of the firm Coppersmith Schermer & Brockelman. “We’re taking that right away from people without any affirmative action by voters.”

Critics also questioned why it should be a Class 5 felony for people to fill in some parts of others’ voter registration forms. Gallardo agreed that people shouldn’t sign someone else up for the PEVL. But if someone forgets to write the date or the word “Arizona” in their address and the volunteer who registers them to vote fills it in themselves, he said, a felony is far too severe a penalty.

“There’s no intent to try to defraud anyone or hurt the voter,” he said.

Gallardo, who formerly worked in the Maricopa County Elections Department, also questioned why Reagan didn’t consult with activists and volunteer groups who have decades of experience in voter registration, though she had numerous stakeholder meetings with election officials.

Some opponents offered other ways of tackling the problem. Some suggested flipping the provision so the postcards that counties would send out ask voters to explicitly state if they want to be removed from the PEVL. Others suggested more extensive voter education, including sending notices to people before elections reminding them to send in their early ballots. One critic said counties should make the early ballots pink or bright yellow so they’re more noticeable.

Reagan said she’s open to changes. Some critics said the wording is unclear and could lead people to be removed if they don’t vote in both the primary and general election, instead of requiring them to only mail in their ballots in at least one of the elections, as Reagan intended. She said she would amend the bill to ensure people would only receive a postcard if they don’t vote in at least one of them. Reagan said she’s open to other possible changes as well, such as less severe penalties for altering someone’s voter registration form.

“This bill has a long way to go before it becomes law,” Reagan said.

The committee also approved SCR1006, another Reagan proposal, which would put a measure on the November 2014 ballot to change the deadline for submitting citizen initiative petitions. It would create a May 1 deadline rather than the current deadline of four months before a November general election.

Reagan said the proposal would create more time for the inevitable legal challenges that many initiatives face. Under the current system, she said, judges are forced to rule on proposed initiatives just hours before the deadline for sending ballots to the printers. The bill passed 5-2, with Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, joining his Republican colleagues in supporting the measure.

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